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Miss John Wick already? Two new sleepers deliver an action-movie fix to tide you over

Miss John Wick already? Two new sleepers deliver an action-movie fix to tide you over
Photo: Furie (Well Go USA), Avengement (Samuel Goldwyn Films), Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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The elevator fight is a beautiful action-movie tradition. Two people—or maybe a whole bunch of people—walk into an elevator. Only one leaves. As a location, the elevator is perfect for combat: Contained, claustrophobic, impossible to escape. And over the years, there have been a great many glorious elevator fights: Chris Evans and the HYDRA agents in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Bruce Willis and the disguised cops in Die Hard With A Vengeance, Donnie Yen and Xing Yu in Flash Point, Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian in Merantau, the gigantic Korean-gangster knife melee in New World, the Ryan Gosling brain-squising in Drive. Each make their movies better.

There’s a scene early on in the brutally entertaining new straight-to-streaming actioner Avengement where Scott Adkins walks into an elevator, surrounded by a whole team of armed guards. Adkins is playing Cain, a horribly scarred and impossibly tough British convict. (So maybe it’s more accurate to say he walks into a lift.) Cain has been briefly let out of prison to go visit his dying mother in the hospital, but he’s gotten there too late. She’s gone, and he hasn’t had a chance to say goodbye. As soon as that elevator dings closed, you know he’s not just going to let these guards escort him back to prison.

But a second later, when the elevator dings open again, we just see Adkins walk out. The camera pans back, and all the guards are unconscious on the ground. It’s a great punchline of a moment. Adkins is such a badass that the movie doesn’t even need to establish his bona fides. After all, we’ve seen movies like this before.

But here’s the best part: Later in the movie, we get to see Adkins beat the hell out of these prison guards anyway. Adkins has punched his way into a pub full of London mobsters, taken all of them prisoner, and regaled them with the story of how he turned into such a Frankenstein’s monster. Once a promising MMA fighter who couldn’t throw a bout when he tried to, Adkins has been thrown into Britain’s worst prison, and he’s had to survive years in a treacherous environment where everyone wants to kill him. He’s been beaten, slashed, burned. And when he gets out, he’s a scarred-up brick shithouse with metal teeth and a mean disposition. In a series of flashbacks, we see nasty prison brawl after nasty prison brawl. And just when we’d forgotten all about it, we see him reach his breaking point and take out everyone else in that elevator.

A film like Avengement knows what its audience wants. It might tease us, but it’ll ultimately deliver. Scott Adkins has made a career out of such deliveries, and even if you don’t watch a ton of low-budget B-movies, his lantern jaw might be vaguely familiar. You might’ve seen him die via explosion in Zero Dark Thirty. You might’ve seen Jason Statham punch him into whirling helicopter blades in The Expendables 2. You might’ve seen him get slapped around by a cape in Doctor Strange. But while Adkins might occasionally get a quick henchman role in a big studio film, that’s not where he made his legend.

In the weird little world of no-budget direct-to-streaming action movies, Adkins is an A-lister. For more than a decade, he’s been cranking out no-frills fight flicks that, shockingly often, turn out to be pretty close to excellent: Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing, Ninja, El Gringo, the bugged-out classic Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning. In these films, Adkins glowers and poses and then does breathtakingly choreographed flipping, spinning, flying fight scenes. He’ll jump up into the air and kick three people before he lands, or he’ll cave in an enemy’s face with a headbutt. He is an absolute blast to watch.

Adkins has now made five movies with Avengement director Jesse V. Johnson, starting with 2017’s Savage Dog, and all of them are short and brutal and wonderful. Johnson is also a stuntman, and he understands exactly why how bare and merciless Scott Adkins movie should be. In 2019’s Triple Threat, Johnson directed a trio of beloved Asian action stars—Ong-Bak’s Tony Jaa, The Raid’s Iko Uwais, and Man Of Tai Chi’s Tiger Chen—and teamed them up into one fast, furious crew. Johnson cast Adkins as the villain, because only Scott Adkins could be a believable enemy to all three of these guys; only Scott Adkins could convince you that all three of them could lose. Avengement is a big left turn for Adkins and Johnson—a violent and darkly funny take on Guy Ritchie’s early work—but it’s still a total action flick, and it’s one of the best in recent memory.

Aside from a select few franchises the American studio action movie has all but disappeared, usurped by CGI superhero spectacles. We’re lucky if we get to see two or three really good old-school face-punchers per year in theaters. But that doesn’t mean the form is dead. A few months ago, the third installment of one of those aforementioned franchises, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, hit theaters to general pandemonium. This was the absurd and sublime action movie that the world had been waiting for: The knife-alley eye-stabbing! The horse kicks to the face! The dog attacks! But while we haven’t seen too many fight scenes like that pop up on multiplex screens in America, they’re still appearing elsewhere. John Wick auteur Chad Stahelski (another stuntman-turned-director) knows this.

The John Wick movies are full of references to low-budget action-cinema classics. The villain of Parabellum is played by Mark Dacascos, a guy who has been starring in B-movies, great and terrible, for decades. Stahleski also has Keanu Reeves fight Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman, two of the stars of the Raid series. And one of the best scenes in Parabellum—a combination motorcycle chase and swordfight—is a direct homage to a similar scene in The Villainess, a great 2017 film from South Korea. The John Wick movies don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re part of a global conversation.

One of the great things about the action-cinema landscape right now is that all these movies are influencing each other, picking up tricks and giving them out. Take, for example, Furie, a gnarly new movie from Vietnam that recently hit streaming services. The movie’s look—slick and inky dark, with the weird-colored lighting that we used to associate with Italian horror films—comes directly from the Wick series. And the plot’s elemental simplicity recalls the almost surreally pure revenge narrative of the first John Wick. But Furie does something different with those influences.

Furie tells the story of Hai Phuong, a single mother and ex-gangster trying to raise her daughter by working as a debt collector in rural Vietnam. One day, her daughter is kidnapped by organ-harvesting human traffickers—basically the most evil human beings imaginable. The kid gets put on a train with a bunch of other doomed kids, and Hai Phuong has to save all of them before they get chopped up into tiny pieces. So she stabs and kicks and chokes her way through the Saigon underworld, willing to throw herself into blood-spattering brawls with anyone who might know anything about her daughter.

There’s a primal urgency to that story. Furie, unlike the John Wick movies, has real stakes, and it seems disturbingly plausible. Veronica Ngo, the actress who you might recognize as the heroic self-sacrificing bomber from the beginning of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, plays Hai Phuong as a deliriously protective and desperate mother bear, not as some mythic avatar of badassery. But like Parabellum or Avengement, Furie takes clear joy in its basic and satisfying action-flick setups. When Ngo smashes her way into a train car full of henchmen, the story pauses for just a second to let you savor what’s about to happen. And some of the characters even seem to be aware they’re living in a movie. One nurse helps Ngo escape from a hospital by re-staging a scene from Terminator 2; she’s clearly having a great time.

If you dig around a little bit, streaming services are full of nasty little delights like Avengement and Furie. Just in 2019, we’ve gotten Triple Threat, China’s Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, the Philippines’ Maria, and South Korea’s Revenger. Later this year, Scott Adkins will fight Donnie Yen in Ip Man 4. These movies will keep coming out, and they’ll keep influencing each other in their quiet and under-the-radar ways. Maybe, in a couple of years, Keanu Reeves will quietly leave an elevator, and the camera will pan back to show a half-dozen dead henchmen behind him. If that happens, you’ll know where they got the idea.